June 30, 2010
It has been nine years since the invasion of Afghanistan, yet the US-led coalition has failed to achieve any of its stated goals.
Osama Bin Laden is presumably still on the loose, the one-eyed Taleban leader Mullah Omar is without doubt still riding around on his motorbike, the opium poppies have never bloomed as bright, corruption is rife, women are still being oppressed by fundamentalists and the country’s infrastructure still has not been rebuilt.
Even Washington’s boast that due to its efforts Afghanistan has morphed into a functioning democracy is flawed when the last election returning Hamid Karzai to power was suspect, to say the least.
If anything, the situation there is worse than ever. Almost 1,800 allied soldiers have lost their lives on Afghan soil since the beginning of the conflict as well as untold numbers of Afghan civilians, written off by the US as “collateral damage”. June this year was the worst month ever in terms of coalition casualties while Britain’s new Prime Minister David Cameron is warning of an escalation in violence as the summer progresses.
This war was badly thought out by members of the Bush administration who didn’t have a clue about tribal societies in a country that over the decades had garnered a reputation of being “the Graveyard of Empires”. It was waged as a knee-jerk response to the 9/11 attacks in order to show grieving Americans that something was being done in retaliation.
Never mind that 99.9 percent of Afghans had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or even knew where the World Trade Center twin towers were. They were warned by the Pentagon that their country would be bombed back to the Stone Age.
In truth, it’s been a fiasco from the start. Those gung-ho US politicians and generals who planned it failed to do their homework. They said they would eradicate the Taleban without understanding who these people are. They don’t go around with “Taleban” tattooed on their foreheads and black turbans can be removed at will. These are ordinary Afghans who follow an extremely conservative ideology, which isn’t something tangible or recognizable. Going after the Taleban is rather like Britain deciding to hunt down Methodists or Presbyterians.
In any case, polls have shown that the majority of Afghans are more sympathetic to the Taleban than they are to the foreigners rolling around their country in tanks and who send their drones to indiscriminately bomb villages believed to be Taleban bolt-holes when the ensuing devastation promptly provides the Taleban with new recruits.
There is a growing consensus among coalition politicians, diplomats and military commanders that wiping out the Taleban is nothing more than a pipedream. Yes, with enough military force, they can be beaten back from towns and villages, but most of the time they return as soon as the foreign soldiers have left the area. The top echelons of the military realize they are bashing their heads on a brick wall but have only recently dared to share this view with an increasingly disillusioned public.
Recent surveys have found that there is little appetite for this conflict in the US and Britain. Others conclude that up to a quarter of soldiers in theater are afflicted with various mental health problems while many more are suffering from morale issues due to the war’s unpopularity in their homelands.
Just as the conflict was fueled by dubious political motives the only way it can end is by politicians willing to negotiate with the Taleban and other insurgent groups. President Hamid Karzai has been trying to pursue this course but because of his association with Western powers that are only providing him with a lukewarm backing, he is unable to garner his enemy’s trust. His recent attempt to hold a peace jirga failed because representatives of the Taleban didn’t bother turning up. He is now attempting to curry favor with his foes by asking Washington to remove Taleban unconnected with Al-Qaeda from the terrorist blacklist.
Over the years, there have been many prominent voices in Washington and London urging negotiation as well as important figures in the country that have largely been ignored. But there is one voice that can’t be easily silenced.
This week, Britain’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Sir David Richards has spoken out unequivocally to say he is uncertain “that an overall victory could now be secured” and he now believes the time has come for negotiations with NATO’s foes so that troops can come home. His advice echoes that of Britain’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles who believes a negotiated peace settlement is the only way forward in the absence of a feasible military solution.
It appears that British politicians are, at last, getting the message. David Cameron has announced that he wants his country’s troops to come home within five years and is resigned to a less than perfect outcome in terms of Afghanistan’s peace and security but he is hesitant to unilaterally pull out for fear of upsetting his country’s trans-Atlantic relationship. President Barack Obama is also seeking an exit strategy and hopes to withdraw large numbers of US military personnel from Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. The question is this: Why are they waiting when, as each day passes, their nations’ finest are putting their lives at stake?
Once again, the answer is down to politics — or to be more specific US politics. Should Obama wake up one day and decide to bring his boys home, Congress would be in an uproar over wasted lives and treasure while ordinary Americans would demand to know what all the sacrifice was about. There is also division in Washington between those who would be happy to cut-and-run and a right wing that cannot contemplate anything that smacks of defeat. Conservatives have a tendency to believe that America’s superior weapons and technology combined with a massive Iraq-style troop surge is a conflict-ending panacea as, indeed, it is in some situations. However, Afghanistan isn’t one of them.
Such major differences in opinion were spotlighted when Gen. Stanley MacChrystal was forced to resign after making disparaging remarks about Obama whom he described as not being “engaged” and criticizing Karl Eichenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, for “covering his flank” by deliberately leaking his disagreement with the military strategy.
Obama is in urgent need of something that vaguely resembles a win to release him from a mess not of his own making, which is probably why he rubber-stamped the troop surge. Those happy smiley documentaries produced by Pentagon Productions showing kind uniformed soldiers distributing sweets to cute Afghan kids aren’t cutting it nowadays. He requires something big, something real, to convince a jaundiced public that it was all worthwhile. I wish him luck!